East Village, New York City
I admire skillful street art, but I rarely feel compelled to photograph it. In early 2010, however, when I came upon the starling mural pictured above, I immediately reached for my camera. At the time, I didn't know anything about the artist; months later, I recognized the muralist's hand in an image I came across online. ROA, a Belgian artist whose animals adorn structures on four continents, is a rising star among street art aficionados.
Admittedly, my love of natural history and enthusiasm for animal imagery predispose me to ROA fandom, but the artist's bold, black-and-white technique is distinct and compelling, and most of his mural projects exhibit a clever site-specificity. This attention to location is most often compositional -- for example, the neck of a Limpkin-like bird passes between two windows on a building in Brooklyn, New York, with the bird's body below and the head above -- but ROA's strongest pieces are also conceptually playful: in Ancona, Italy, he painted a disheveled cormorant, a type of water bird, on the side of a large boat; elsewhere, a mole emerges from a pile of bricks; and a desiccated fish is painted on the side of a trailer near California's Salton Sea, a large salt lake in which most fish species are unable to survive. An enthusiastic amateur naturalist, I appreciate the context-appropriate nature of these works.
Unfortunately, ROA doesn't always paint his creatures in or near their natural habitat. I love his giant anteater, pictured trotting along the side of a single-story building in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, but I wonder if the artist realizes that the species is extirpated north of Honduras. Still, because giant anteater fossils have been found in northern Mexico, let's give the artist the benefit of the doubt and interpret this piece as an observation about ecological change. A stylized blue whale rising from a sea of grass outside an abandoned factory in Moscow, Russia, however, is too far from an ocean to be rationalized. Its incongruity is amusing and the image is beautifully crafted, but the piece lacks the impact of ROA's more considerate efforts. No worries. ROA's terrific Virginia opossum in downtown Los Angeles, its prehensile tail wrapped around a stretch of the building's brickwork, more than makes up for the misplaced whale!
While my fondness for natural history makes me an unusually nit-picky viewer, it also means that I'm especially excited by the urban and exurban placement of ROA's rats, squirrels, starlings, herons, raccoons, cormorants, and skunks. These animals are hardy and adaptable, and have proven able to thrive in ecosystems dominated by human habitation. Many people dismiss these creatures as pests, but their presence in our lives is of significant value. As we become an evermore urban species, they are our most immediate connection to the undomesticated, non-human world. In this respect, ROA's murals are portraits of our closest neighbors.
From the "NUART Landmark Series"
Some of ROA's more elaborate murals depict great piles of dead animals. These call to mind the tables laden with rotting fruit, hunted game, and skulls that appear in many 15th century Northern European vanitas ("emptiness"), memento mori ("remember your mortality"), and ars moriendi ("art of dying") still life paintings. As their names suggest, all of these allegorical works were created as nods to death's inevitability. It seems these themes preoccupy ROA, too. One of his best memento mori works is located in Stavanger, Norway. Lifeless squirrels, rats, rabbits, and herons are heaped at the foot of an old warehouse, with the limp necks of the herons apparently tied to cords on the wall's face (should we call this reverse trompe l'oeil?) In Mexico City, ROA adds a raccoon, armadillo, and skunk.
Mexico City, Mexico
These murals will seem grotesque and bleak to some viewers, but they aim to inspire by reminding us that life is transitory. The sentiment was expressed well by Steve Jobs during his 2005 Stanford University commencement address, a speech that, in the wake of Jobs' untimely death from cancer, has been making Internet rounds. Jobs said,
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."In many respects, ROA's works are the less refined kin of Walton Ford's paintings. Both artists address mortality and the relationship of humanity to other animal species with humor and finesse, but ROA's pictures are less layered with art historical and natural history references; as a result, they're more accessible and immediately gratifying.
Based on the images he shares on his Flickr photostream, the talented 30-something has at least five murals in San Francisco. Let's hope that he returns to the Bay Area and contributes more of his handiwork to our landscape.